The Jared Holt Project

February 28, 2009

Against all odds, the South End is
being rebuilt from the inside out

Oh boy, am I happy with what I saw this last Thusday. Sure, I was delighted by the recent opening of Eagle Court Apartments on Morton Avenue down the hill from my house. That renovation project transformed a notorious slum building that blighted our neighborhood into a prize residence. Great, but Eagle Court was just the beginning.

This past February 26 was the ribbon cutting for a beautiful, beautiful collection of homes that used to be a virtual hole in the ground. I have to say that the design, the feel, the materials used in the Jared Holt project are overall better than Eagle Court, which in itself was built well enough. There was plenty of talk at the event about Jared Holt serving as a template for further building projects not merely in the South End, but all across the City of Albany.

Steve Longo Steve Longo – His Moment Of Triumph

This ribbon cutting was the result of some twelve years of work by Albany Housing Authority (AHA) director Steve Longo and his staff. Mr. Longo was grinning happily all morning, as well he should have at this moment of triumph. All of us were present because of Mr. Longo’s successful hard work and dogged persistence in the face of what had looked like impossible odds.

Having closely watched this project unfold since the late 1990s, I can testify to that. Our elected officials had written off the surrounding neighborhood as not worth saving. Actually, by the late 1990s the (current) City administration had adopted a policy of witholding vital services such as police or infrastructure maintenance from all of the downtown neighborhoods. South End residents responded to this abuse by reluctantly leaving their community.

Somehow, Mr. Longo navigated the politics, and somehow he figured out where all the money needed to carry out the project was hiding. More impressively, he discovered that decent affordable housing was what the community desperately wanted and needed more than anything else. And he is perhaps the first City official to have understood that the economic health of the entire City depends upon the economic health of our downtown communities.

At one time this mostly empty lot between Third and Fourth Avenues was the heart of the South End, the location of one of Albany’s oldest and longest running businesses, the Jared Holt wax factory.

The first Jared Holt factory was located at 48 Hudson Street, one of the oldest buildings in the City. At the beginning of the 20th century the old factory on Hudson became the company headquarters while the manufacturing was moved to the South End. By the 1960s the South End plant was abandoned, the company sold and the Jared Holt waxes, most of which were used for finishing wood, eventually disappeared.

The factory building sat for decades undergoing demolition by neglect. Ten years ago in March of 1999 the building was wrecked by the City as part of a wave of demolitions throughout the South End that generated accusations that City officials were personally profiting from the slaughter. i don’t recall hearing more than a few peeps from preservationists about wrecking the Jared Holt factory, but I seem to recall that the neighbors at that point were relieved that it was gone.

The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street

The demolition of the factory building may not have left a literal hole in the ground, but the empty block sure gave the impression of a sucking void. Indeed, it seemed to me that that the entire neighborhood was oriented around the factory but had lost it’s center. And in the last ten years, as nearby neighbors know all too well, the surrounding neighborhood fell deeper into ruin.

The impressive thing is that the project repairs the streetscape, which is no small thing. Suburbanites are genuinely puzzled by the concept of streetscape, living as they do surrounded by endless parking lots. Streetscape is all about orientation, a secure feeling down in your gut that you know exactly where you are. Suburbanites are by nature disoriented, that’s why they choose to occupy big unsustainable nowheres.

Those of us who live in the City readily understand that our quality of life is directly tied to the number of gaps between the houses in our immediate neighborhoods. Each demolition reduces that secure feeling and brings the neighborhood closer to becoming a parking lot. When the buildings being destroyed have served faithfully for 150 years or more, their loss to the neighbors is more than unsettling, it can be positively traumatic.

107 Broad Street 107 Broad Street

The most interesting of the new Jared Holt buildings is 107 Broad Street, which almost looks like an old country church. I loved the layout of the living space inside the tower portion of the building, I seriously felt like I wanted to move in right then and there. There seemed to be general agreement that this building ought to be reproduced elsewhere, i sure hope it doesn’t remain unique.

The materials, such as the carpets and windows, are of the highest quality. Darren Scott, who is Steve Longo’s long suffering assistant at AHA, told me that this was a conscious decision. The buildings are a showcase, he told me. More importantly, “we want these buildings to last,” he said.

Darren made a special point of telling me that they used real bricks and mortar for the facades, rather than the fake-o glue on brick that has become a standard siding on new construction everywhere. He didn’t have to explain. All of us are hyper aware of the row of highly visible poorly built buildings on South Pearl Street up from Madison, which for decades have sported peeling fake brick which looks horrible.

That row of houses on S. Pearl is a textbook example of stupid urban planning. At the end of the administration of evil old Mayor Erastus Corning, the City demolished a row of well constructed 150+ year old buildings after first allowing the eviction of the tenants, residents and shops. These lost architectural treasures were replaced by stick and cardboard crap that looks and feels like they wouldn’t stand up to a strong wind.

The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street Clinton Street Facade

I did wonder about the gas filled windows that were chosen for the Jared Holt buildings. Yes, they are the highest quality, two panes of thermal glass filled with argon or some such noble gas. These wooden windows do look nice and have the lowest heat loss of any commercially available windows.

The problem comes when, say, some kid throws a rock through the window. The windows can’t be repaired at the local hardware store or glass shop, they have to be sent to the manufacturer. Two pieces of thermal glass and a bottle of fancy gas, not to mention labor and handling, is mighty expensive. Is this a good idea, especially in a low income neighborhood?

“We wanted to be historically accurate to fit in with the character of the neighborhood,” Darren told me, “and that precluded storm windows.” Plus, a good portion of the funding that Darren and Mr. Longo painstakingly cobbled together for this project depended on meeting standards of energy efficient construction. Thus the windows solved two problems but create a new one.

But really, that’s the only criticism of the Jared Holt project that I have. Everything else, as far as I can see, is golden.

The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street Before The Speeches

Under the tent Steve Longo, almost giggling with happiness, acted as master of ceremonies for the politicians, starting with Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. It’s been fascinating listening to The Mayor’s patter since the beginning of the year, which is now full of New Urbanist catch phrases. My absolutely favorite phrase from his speech that day was “the blight of suburbanization.” Yup, he really said that.

County Executive Mike Breslin made what I thought was the most remarkable speech of all the politicians present. Albany County, he told us, provides a variety of vital family support services, but in order for them to be effective families, especially children, “need a safe and secure place to come home to.” Thus the county works as best it can to cooperate with initiatives such as Jared Holt.

2nd ward Common Council member Carolyn McLaughlin, who represents the neighborhood, gave a rousing speech of which I remember not one word. This is not surprising, a week ago she announced that she planned to run for Common Council President, a Citywide post. That is, she plans to run if current president Shawn Morris quits the job to run for mayor, which as of this writing is still up in the air.

Later I asked Ms. McLaughlin why she was using a cane that day, I wondered if an injury that she had sustained years ago was acting up again. An injury, I should add, caused by a collapsing front stoop. She said no, she was recovering from knee replacement surgery and was doing fine.

“I’m sure you realize,” I said to her, “that if you want to win a Citywide race you’re going to have to climb every front stoop in Albany.” “That’s why I’m having the surgery now, so I can heal by spring. That way I can campaign come summer.” Ah.

By the way, that is the reason why First ward Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro is not running for mayor, or at least that’s what he says. Climbing stoops is how you get elected in this town, and Dominick’s aging baby boomer body is not up to the task. Also, he says he doesn’t have the cash to run a Citywide campaign against a well-heeled incumbent.

All that is nonsense. Dominick, paradoxically, is such an effective politician precisely because of his lack of ambition. If he had the “fire in the belly” he would find a way to overcome the lack of cash and deal with those horrible front steps that grind up candidate’s joints. Apparently Carolyn McLaughlin does not lack for ambition the way Dominick does, she is doing what is necessary to attain public office.

The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street Luci McKnight Watched By Jerry Jennings

County legislator Luci McKnight was without question the best dressed of the speechifying officials. Her speech, oddly enough, was about her one contribution to the project… which was undeniably an obstruction. And yeah, she sure upset a lot of people at the time.

This was when the building site was first cleared and ready to go, the final approvals about to come through. But Luci did not trust the analysis of the soil on the site, she wanted more studies. “We’re going to have kids living there,” she told me at the time, “and kids play in the dirt. They’ll be the ones who get hurt if the site is contaminated.”

So Luci used her position to exercise home rule and hold up the project, refusing to release the county owned parcels of land that made up part of the site. Was she justified in doing this? Well, at this early point Republican George Pataki was still pretending to be governor and environmental oversight was at an all-time low in New York State. I think she was right to be suspicious.

The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street Broad Street From A Window

But after sitting in all these meetings I’ve come to understand why all the officials involved with the project were ready to throw her off a rooftop. The process of securing government money is a delicate matter involving securing the building site, submitting plans and getting approvals all in the exact proper order. Any delay can cause the project to lose funding and thus fall apart.

Well, thankfully Luci did not mention in her speech that at this point, with the whole project teetering on the brink, she contacted… me. No, I don’t know much about environmental reports, at least not enough to be useful. But fortunately I have a friend named Dave Camp who had just retired (at age 41!) from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC.) He had spent the last 16 years writing and analyzing such reports, an expert with no agenda.

After over two hours on the phone reading Dave the environmental report and answering his questions, he concluded that the soil remediation being done on the site was “overkill, appropriate for a residential project. If they do everything they say they’ll do, removing the soil and digging in ‘hotspots,’ then this should be way more than satisfactory.”

I conveyed this to Luci, in detail, and she left me with a dire warning. “If anyone gets sick, it will be on your head, my friend.” Um, uh…

Based on my say so, Luci let the project go forward. And that, my friends, is my one useful contribution to Jared Holt.

Finally we had the ribbon cutting. Mayor Jennings generously shared his collection of ribbon cutting scissors with a crowd of cutters.

The New Streetscape From Up Clinton Street (click on photo for full size)

Starting left in the photo above, we have Mike Breslin looking about as relaxed as he ever gets, Steve Longo grinning, neighborhood resident Rose who would be moving into one of the apartments that day, His Majesty, Carolyn McLaughlin, Luci McKnight, the guy from the bank or Omni or something, and last but not least the guy who hands out money from the State.

Now, for comparison, I present a photo that Luci sent me, taken at almost the exact same moment from head on:

See? It’s all a matter of point of view. One person can look at the South End and see a wrecked landscape that ought to be turned into suburban parking lots. But some of us know better.

The South End has been here for centuries, long before we were born. Our job is to make sure our urban community is still here long after we all return to the dirt. That’s our obligation to the future.


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